Skip to main content

The Hakawati

Tina Page's picture Posted by Tina Page

The Hakawati

"The Hakawati" by Rabih Alameddine
Tina Estlin Page
Come, listen, let me tell you a story: märchen and sagen to people your dreams.

Listen. Look, in my dayjob I work with some people who can most delicately be termed characters. You know the type; at home with the mindspring of Kaufman and Solondz. One gentleman in particular I vibe well with, and depending on the amount of drudge to be done that day, to be working next to him is a bane or boon; he is a storyteller. The man yarns. I have been gifted new chapters of the same story on the regular for nearly two years, delivered cantabile-like with purposeful pauses. Another coworker once said to me, "Can't you just imagine Frank around a campfire, scaring the pants off some booger-faced kids with his stories?" Affirmative. Mad Frank in the maelstrom; eyes out on stems, as they say. He has perfected the most treasured art of storytelling: delivery.

So listen, let me tell you: three pages into Rabih Alameddine's The Hakawati and I dissolved into the breadth of its spine like sodden bread. Coup de foudre! Here is a top shelf gamete. The Hakawati is, at its very core frame, about a Lebanese American, Osama al-Kharrat, who travels back to Beirut to be at his dying father's side. The reader learns that Osama's family is full of hakawati's--the most proficient of Lebanese storytellers--and from there the book weaves their stories and others, adulterated thickly by folklore, legends, and the likes of 1001 Nights and The Canterbury Tales, all in an attempt to tether a dying man just a little longer to our world. The interlay of the stories is such that each is abbreviated perfectly, paused and poised, while another picks up, creating a perfect alignment of narratives: Alameddine is a master at delivery, timing. "A hakawati's timing must always be perfect," he deadpans, in a perfectly climactic moment in the novel. The fabula of the stories is poignant but relies most heavily on Alameddine's grasp of sjuzhet--how those stories are told. This is what makes him, his characters,and The Hakawati so intrinsically valuable.

And what an important work it is, in an era where films are being remade before they even meet a distributor. Alameddine rightfully romanticizes the poetry adage of "make it new," taking familiar stories and caressing their words into something his own; his language work is utterly ridiculous. He tailors his verbiage for each tale, and the contrast is like a violinic slip of the G chord into that F#; sustained and enough to try tingles down along your arms. The result is both bawdy and delicious, witty and winking, and he does it all, effortlessly and casual as a back scratch.

Listen: there is so much I could say about the brilliance of The Hakawati but it would only serve injustice. It is, simply, a must read. But be warned: at over 500 pages, be prepared to spend some time perfecting the downward position of the constipated guru. Worry not. You'll thank me, and our foremost Hakawati, Alameddine. Rest easy, Roland Barthes.